In the wake of the Rikers Island blockade fiasco and other racialized controversies across the city, former U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, was elected as NYC Mayor on a platform of law and order. Once in office, the new mayor appointed Bill Bratton as the Commissioner of the New York City Police Department. Bratton is perhaps best known for instituting “broken windows” policing, the theory that low-level urban disorder generates and sustains more serious and often violent crime. When implemented, this policing approach leads to more frequent and aggressive contacts between police and community. During Giuliani’s tenure, crime did indeed drop in New York City but also around the country for a variety of reasons. The assertion that this reduction in crime is the result of broken windows policing remains widely disputed.
Vice journalist John Surico found that, “in numerous interviews, most subjects agreed: the 1990s was, by far, the worst time to be on Rikers Island.” During this time, gangs such as the Bloods and Latin Kings first emerged at Rikers. Mary Buser, who worked on Rikers as a social worker during the ‘90s explained that incarcerated individuals would join gangs for fear that they would otherwise be killed. “Invariably these people would come back crying, saying I don’t want to be in a gang,” she explained. However, there was no amnesty process by which individuals could renounce their gang membership and be transferred to a safe facility. When Buser proposed reform to allow individuals to leave gangs, thereby reducing gang presence, she was turned away. “I became very disillusioned and discouraged that the DOC wasn’t open to anything constructive,” Buser lamented.
Glenn E. Martin, the founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA, spent time as a Rikers detainee during the 1990s. Martin explains that gang affiliation was often first determined upon an individual’s arrive at Rikers, and would then continue if and when they were transferred to upstate prisons. Therefore, the first step towards ameliorating gang violence at prisons statewide should have been to address it at the jail level.
According to Buser, the 1990s were turbulent not only due to the emergence of gangs, but also because of extreme overcrowding. In the early ‘90s, [Rikers] reached 24,000 daily occupancy, earning the title as the single most occupied jail in the nation. To deal with overcrowding, a jail barge was docked near the East River and makeshift jail tents known as “sprungs” popped up all over Rikers Island. When the barges and sprungs were at full capacity, COs would send detainees to solitary confinement as a strategy to free up beds for the general population.
In order to manage violence, borne in part from overcrowding, DOC Commissioners like Bernard Kerik (who was later convicted of corruption) along with COBA president Norman Seabrook (recently arrested for corruption charges) followed Mayor Giuliani’s “tough-on-crime” lead by employing aggressive tactics to prevent violence perpetrated by detainees. ,  A data system resembling the NYPD’s “CompStat” was created to more efficiently and objectively identify ‘trouble regions’. The number of COs increased from 8,200 to over 10,000, and officers were equipped with new weapons such as pepper spray, mace, and shields. A SWAT team, armed with clubs and electrified stun shields, also joined the ranks of the jail complex staff. Seabrook claimed that the new equipment allowed officers to do “things the way they’re supposed to be done.” According to Martin, this new gear included masks that allowed COs to conceal their identity, thereby reducing CO accountability for the increasingly brutal officer-on-detainee violence.
As part of this effort to clamp down on violence, COs began conducting random raids at inhumane hours. Buser explained that these “searches were brutal…some just cause[d] real terror in [detainees].” She furthered explained that she would “see glimpses of beat downs,” that the DOC would swiftly and effectively cover up from the public eye. Despite the increased intensity of Rikers security, slashings rose 1000% from 1994 to 1999.Buser suggests that the culture of violence served neither the detainees nor the correction officers:
“The reduction [in violence] could have been done differently. It didn’t have to be done in a way that terrorized and traumatized people…It was open season on the inmates. There was no incentivizing good behavior.”
According to Jonathan Chasan, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society, “whenever you impose a system of restraint on this scale, it can be easily abused.” Still, Seabrook celebrated these aggressive tactics and the swelling might of his officers.
Meanwhile, Norman Seabrook expanded the purview of his union, not only by riding the wave of Giuliani’s tough-on-crime era, but also through his unique political finesse–which far outlived the Giuliani years. As president of COBA, Seabrook tirelessly cultivated personal relationships with high-profile politicians such as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Governor George Pataki, while donating millions of dollars to political campaigns. Through these tactics, Seabrook achieved significant benefits for COBA members. But according to the New York Times:
Current and former city officials repeatedly described Mr. Seabrook as the biggest obstacle to curb brutality and malfeasance at Rikers. He has vigorously resisted stiffer penalties for the use of excessive force by guards and has fought stronger screening measures designed to stop correction officers from smuggling weapons and drugs into the jails.
As corrections officers, under Seabrook’s leadership, were achieving newfound benefits, disenfranchised detainees at Rikers watched with distress as Giuliani cut spending on healthcare at the jail. For years, Montefiore Medical Center had managed healthcare on Rikers Island. In 1998, Giuliani sold the contract to St. Barnabas at a rate that saved the City $7.4 million a year. Under the Montefiore contract, the City was required to pay each time a Rikers detainee was sent to an offsite, city hospital. Under the new system, St. Barnabas was given a lump sum for providing all medical care. This meant that the hospital, rather than the City, was required to pay for each detainee hospital visit, and retain remaining funds, creating a perverse incentive to reduce the number of visits, and decrease level of care.
Critics of the new hospital contract argued that St. Barnabas was financially dis-incentivized from providing adequate care for detainees, especially to those in need of hospital treatment. In the immediate wake of the switch to St. Barnabas’s managed care, medical complaints at Rikers rose by over 400 percent, leading to a slew of investigations. According to Mary Buser, St. Barnabas was “motivated by profit with absolutely no experience in correctional health care, a very unique type of medical care.” Numerous lawsuits were filed on behalf of detainees who lost limbs, and even their lives, under St. Barnabas management.
Following two Board of Correction investigations, Mayor Giuliani surrendered to critics’ demands, and terminated the St. Barnabas contract in 2000. At that time, the City discovered that St. Barnabas had failed to achieve 13 of the 35 performance standards stipulated in their initial contract. The new Rikers contract went to the Prison Health Services of Nashville, later known as Corizon. According to Buser, while Corizon had significantly more experience managing prison care than did their predecessors, they used their expertise to cut care in more clever ways that were less likely to be noticed.